Glucocorticoid receptors are required effectors of TGFβ1-induced p38 MAPK signaling to advanced cancer phenotypes in triple-negative breast cancer

Carlos Perez Kerkvliet, Amy R. Dwyer, Caroline H. Diep, Robert H. Oakley, Christopher Liddle, John A. Cidlowski, Carol A. Lange

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24 Scopus citations


Background: Altered signaling pathways typify breast cancer and serve as direct inputs to steroid hormone receptor sensors. We previously reported that phospho-Ser134-GR (pS134-GR) species are elevated in triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and cooperate with hypoxia-inducible factors, providing a novel avenue for activation of GR in response to local or cellular stress. Methods: We probed GR regulation by factors (cytokines, growth factors) that are rich within the tumor microenvironment (TME). TNBC cells harboring endogenous wild-type (wt) or S134A-GR species were created by CRISPR/Cas knock-in and subjected to transwell migration, invasion, soft-agar colony formation, and tumorsphere assays. RNA-seq was employed to identify pS134-GR target genes that are regulated both basally (intrinsic) or by TGFβ1 in the absence of exogenously added GR ligands. Regulation of selected basal and TGFβ1-induced pS134-GR target genes was validated by qRT-PCR and chromatin immunoprecipitation assays. Bioinformatics tools were used to probe public data sets for expression of pS134-GR 24-gene signatures. Results: In the absence of GR ligands, GR is transcriptionally activated via p38-dependent phosphorylation of Ser134 as a mechanism of homeostatic stress-sensing and regulated upon exposure of TNBC cells to TME-derived agents. The ligand-independent pS134-GR transcriptome encompasses TGFβ1 and MAPK signaling gene sets associated with TNBC cell survival and migration/invasion. Accordingly, pS134-GR was essential for TNBC cell anchorage-independent growth in soft-agar, migration, invasion, and tumorsphere formation, an in vitro readout of cancer stemness properties. Both pS134-GR and expression of the MAPK-scaffolding molecule 14-3-3ζ were essential for a functionally intact p38 MAPK signaling pathway downstream of MAP3K5/ASK1, indicative of a feedforward signaling loop wherein self-perpetuated GR phosphorylation enables cancer cell autonomy. A 24-gene pS134-GR-dependent signature induced by TGFβ1 predicts shortened overall survival in breast cancer patients. Conclusions: Phospho-S134-GR is a critical downstream effector of p38 MAPK signaling and TNBC migration/invasion, survival, and stemness properties. Our studies define a ligand-independent role for GR as a homeostatic "sensor" of intrinsic stimuli as well as extrinsic factors rich within the TME (TGFβ1) that enable potent activation of the p38 MAPK stress-sensing pathway and nominate pS134-GR as a therapeutic target in aggressive TNBC.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number39
JournalBreast Cancer Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Author(s).


  • 14-3-3ζ
  • Breast cancer
  • Cellular stress
  • Cytokines
  • Glucocorticoid receptor
  • MAP3K5/ASK1
  • Migration
  • Phosphorylation
  • TGFβ1
  • Transcription
  • p38 MAP kinase


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